“But as it is in all great discoveries, a good library arrangement is not achieved at once, but is a slow growth through difficulties met and conquered; some of the best portions of it will be those which have flashed across your mind when there seemed no pathway out of the thicket of difficulty in which you were struggling.”
B.R. Wheatley (August, 1878). Desultory Thoughts on the Arrangement of a Private Library. The Library Journal, Vol.III, No.6.
Some months ago the topography of our living-room altered momentarily although this time self-inflicted not seismic. Popping-in you would have been obliged to step gingerly lest you trip over or topple the piles of books dotting the living-room floor. Navigating safe passage to my small island of carpet – an excellent vantage point for surveying the now empty shelves – you might have asked “packing or unpacking?” Accustomed, as Christchurch residents have become to these antonymous queries – insured or uninsured? Damaged or undamaged? Repairable or unrepairable? Fazed or unfazed? – I would have struggled to give you an unequivocal reply. In the shaky days following February 22nd 2011 they accentuated the immediacy of our topsy-turvy life; now three years on their black and white certainties skip deftly across the gully of stuck-ness in which many still languish. Seemingly I was in a twilight zone between packing and unpacking.
Most of my books, like undecided jurors, remain sequestered in the basement. They’ve been out for three years, naturally I’d expected them back sooner. When the ground beneath Christchurch convulsed at 12:51pm on February 22nd the hitherto harmonious coupling of shelf and wall was sorely tested. The book-laden shelves covering the south wall of our living-room were given short shrift, jostled forward on their plinth by an agitated concrete block wall. Just as in Watty Piper’s story The Little Engine that Could, when something small prevails despite an ostensibly impossible task, complete shelf collapse was averted by one little L-bracket holding on – “I think I can, I think I can” – long after the others had given up. While grateful that nearly four metres of shelving and several hundred books were not face down on the living room floor, surely there was a limit to the amount of shaking even one plucky little L-bracket could withstand. I’d read Howard’s End. A falling bookcase and shower of books was partly responsible for the death of an ailing Leonard Bast. A self-deputised rapid inspection was undertaken and the shelves summarily ‘red-stickered’ – unsafe – in engineering parlance. Over the next few days the books were duly evacuated. In the months following February 22nd legitimate EQC (Earthquake Commission) inspections were undertaken. The north wall of our living-room was indeed ‘munted’ – post-earthquake vernacular meaning ‘broken’ or ‘ruined’ – but, although impressive, the stepped cracking in the south wall behind the shelves was deemed cosmetic only. Brotherly brute-force and a masonry drill bit re-anchored the teetering shelves. Disappointingly, this wasn’t the green light to unpack the books. The ground, jelly-like continued to wobble – by mid-January 2013 the Christchurch Quake Map had mapped 11,000 quakes – while post-quake bureaucracy resembling over boiled toffee, had become impenetrable.
For a self-described accumulator of books the empty expanse of shelving was at once dispiriting and thrilling. I remain hopelessly attached and attracted to the book as object and, although I endeavour to curb my book-buying to books I might actually read, there are some that have made it home on looks alone. It was an exuberant, abstract dust jacket – designed by Jacob Koster – cloaking Robin Muir’s 1960 novel, Word for Word that caught my eye and imagination, its apparent random daubs of colour reminiscent of a Jackson Pollock canvas.
Similarly, Ringdoves and Snakes – an account by British journalist Patience Gray, of her and sculptor Norman Mommens eleven months on the island of Naxos in the mid-1960s – I noticed when ferreting through a motley assortment of books in an out of town second-hand shop. It was purchased for the princely sum of fifty-cents on the strength of its intriguing jacket illustration and monotypes of Mommens marble carvings made while on Naxos.
For me the singular success of the book is its ability to befriend and bewitch in a way no e-reader can. I inevitably gravitate to someone’s bookshelves but have yet to feel any gravitational pull towards someone’s e-reader. Perhaps this is because e-readers are devoid of context, whereas books carry with them the imprint of previous readings and, as Alberto Manguel says in A History of Reading, we are influenced by envisaging them in another’s hands. I doubt I would ever have read Rupert Brooke’s poems had it not been for the look and feel of the leather bound volume that bore his gilt engraved signature. I found it thirty years ago in Smiths Bookshop. Equally compelling was ‘Jerusalem 1942’ written on the flyleaf; had a Kiwi soldier had found solace in these poems? Or perhaps they had been read in Jerusalem, the isolated settlement on the banks of the Whanganui River? There is, I suppose, a vulnerability and yet chutzpah about actual books on actual shelves and maybe that too is part of the appeal. Whether chosen, bestowed or requisite books stand, as presumably reliable witnesses, publicly declaring certain truths about our identity.
I have missed being surrounded by, and reminded by my books. Perhaps it is because, as essayist Charles Lamb said “I love to loose myself in other men’s minds. When I am not walking, I am reading; I cannot sit and think. Books think for me.” And so, as their absence lengthened some have been retrieved from the basement. Now these books – mentally classified as BB (before basement) books – jostle for space among a disturbing increase in AB (after basement) books. Evidently I had not envisaged the actual shelf classification conundrum this now haphazard company of books would present. I am by character, as writer Anne Fadiman describes herself, in an essay, Marrying Libraries from her 1998 book Ex Libris, “a splitter”, my books segregated both by topic and location. A bookcase in the hallway holds History, Biography, Drama and Travel books, while attic shelves are home to Art, Architecture and Interior Design. Literature, shelved alphabetically, layer the living-room shelves with under plantings of Poetry, a small patch of favoured Children’s Literature and a flourishing bed of Books about Books. Now, as I contemplated the relandscaped living-room, it seemed proof that meticulousness in uncertain times would be counterproductive. A radical rethink of book arrangement was called for.
Feeling quietly confident I dug, from one of the twenty-two boxes in the basement, Professor Henry Petroski’s The Book on the Book Shelf. I knew the Professor – of both Civil Engineering and History at Duke University – had devoted the appendix of his book to addressing the vexing question of shelf arrangement. Titled Order, Order Professor Petroski proffers, in his words, “in no significant order, and without any claim of completeness or exhaustiveness” twenty-one options – each complemented by explanatory text – intended to whip even the most errant of book collections into shape. He categorises his options according to ‘public’- reasonably obvious upon casual inspection – and ‘private’ – requiring Holmesian prowess to recognise – “orderings” of books. Suggestions include; at No. 9 by “read/unread books”, No. 10 “by strict order of acquisition”, No.17 “according to new or used”, No. 19 “by sentimental value”. Number 21 looked promising, “by still more esoteric arrangements” ergo the book arranger is given carte blanche.
I had an idea; associative shelving. A bit smart-alecky? Maybe. But I’m always alert to and interested in finding connections – some obvious, others less so – between books on my shelves. By bringing certain books together I would create an arcane memory map of authorial, textual and contextual links. Unwilling to relinquish my alphabetisation crutches just yet, I began by gathering books and essays by a long favoured American author, Paul Auster. Alongside Auster I shelved J.M. Coetzee, who since 2002, has lived in Australia. The two authors met for the first time in 2008 at an Australian Literary Festival and, over a three-year period, began writing to each other. Broaching an array of topics that included philosophy and the financial crisis, through to musings on friendship, love and marriage, their letters were collected in Here & Now: Paul Auster & J.M. Coetzee Letters 2008-2011. Now shelf-neighbours, I imagined them resuming those trans-Pacific conversations.
Before she could read her father’s books Anne Fadiman was building castles with them. Her essay, My Ancestral Castles, is an affectionate chronicle of a childhood literally immersed in books, Fadiman’s parents had around seven thousand between them. I felt certain she would delight in sharing shelf space with her late father Clifton Fadiman and her husband George Howe Colt. Resisting the urge to construct with rather than shelve these books, Ex Libris, Rereadings and At Large and At Small, now stand contentedly between Reading I’ve Liked and The Big House. Among my books were other writer’s accounts of their childhood reading and the books they love. Francis Spufford’s The Child that Books Built still hides in the basement, but I did have Into the Looking Glass Wood by Alberto Manguel. The first essay in this collection, A Reader in the Looking-Glass Wood is, as the title suggests, Manguel’s adventures – beginning at age eight – in and out of Wonderland with the irrepressible Alice. Musing on the attachment he feels to the edition in which he first read a book, Manguel recalls in detail his illustrated copy of Alice in Wonderland. As a child I read and now possess my mother’s copy of Alice in Wonderland. It, like Manguel’s, is illustrated by John Tenniel and has the same “thick creamy paper” he describes. And while his smelt “mysteriously of burnt wood” mine, lying cramped in the basement, would probably just smell musty. In Alice’s absence I pulled from one of the piles Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, another of Manguel’s favourites. He writes affectionately about Kim in A Reading Diary and although my Kim is not, as his is, from the 1914 Bombay edition I shelve it beside his books. I don’t think he would object.
It occurred to me – reading aloud aside – that although the act of reading itself is insular it is opposite in effect. There is no dichotomy between reading and life. Great books help to socialise us – some like an attentive parent, take us gently by the hand, while others thrust us unaccompanied into the world – but both broaden our understanding of it. Inevitably, my mysterious book assemblage, was less about forming a library and more to do with recalling the neighbourhoods I roamed as a reader. And, like all good neighbourhoods, there were always writers ready to share their reading wisdom. Alan Bennett and Julian Barnes, both keen-eyed observers of life, have introduced me to writers I was otherwise ignorant of. If not for Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, I may never have stumbled across Denton Welch, and anyone who solemnly announces – at age seven – that “a flea would despise the amount of lemonade I’ve got Mother” must surely be essential reading. Similarly, after reading Julian Barnes essay The deceptiveness of Penelope Fitzgerald, I felt rather embarrassed at not having read her work before and set about rectifying this with all the fervour of a new convert. The vulnerable and dispossessed inhabit Fitzgerald’s sublime novels so beside them I have placed Chronicle of the Unsung, by New Zealand writer Martin Edmond. I think she would approve.
Admittedly some of my book groupings did seem decidedly odd. For instance, I shelved Bookman’s Holiday by Holbrook Jackson, beside Long Ago in Rouen, written by my mother’s godmother, weaver Ida Lough (nee Withers) and No Ordinary Woman: Ria Bancroft Sculptor, because of a bookplate. Bookman’s Holiday, carries the bookplate of Canterbury artist and publisher Leo Bensemann. Bensemann, Aunty Ida and her close friend Ria Bancroft, were all members of The Group, formed in 1927, it was an alliance of like-minded and mutually supportive Christchurch artists. Likewise, American essayist and critic Sven Birkerts and exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky might seem an unlikely pairing until you read Birkerts book The Gutenberg Elegies in which he outlines the circumstances of their chance meeting and the subsequent impact Brodsky had on his writing life. Other book groupings were perhaps more obvious; who other than Ivan Turgenev – Andre Gide perhaps? – would Robert Dessaix wish to bump into on his shelf. Striding beside Iain Sinclair are Daniel Defoe and William Blake, while Terry Castle leans tentatively against Susan Sontag. And it is sheer mischief on my part that Salam Rushdie has Marianne Wiggins at his side.
I worked steadily and the floor was mostly clear of books when Ali returned home. Eager to show-off my newly ordered shelves I beckoned her into the living-room. She listened attentively to an animated explanation of my esoteric book arrangement and why certain books were now shelved together. Standing together surveying the shelves she wrapped an arm round me and said gently “they look great darling, what a lot of fun you’ve had with your books today”.
“What do you mean fun” I blustered. This had been hard work. But Ali was right of course, as mysterious as it might be, my book arrangement was also playful. It was dynamic rather than static, which in a way, succinctly sums up my relationship with books. I like to look at them, handle them, think about them, commune with them and sometimes even inhale their smell. Writer Duncan Fallowell has said “books are like oxygen”, and I agree, for me too they are a necessity, providing everyday sustenance for my soul.